the parents of a handicapped child in a school district using
federal funds pursuant to 20 U.S.C. § 1411 be given prior
notice and the opportunity for a hearing with respect to any
action taken by the school district concerning their child.
20 U.S.C. § 1415(c) provides for an administrative appeal of the §
1415(b)(2) hearing findings. Then 20 U.S.C. § 1415(e)(2)
provides that a party dissatisfied with the administrative
appeal may file a civil action contesting the initial decision
of the school district. Finally, 20 U.S.C. § 1415(e)(4)(B)
provides that "In any action or proceeding brought under this
subsection [(e)], the court, in its discretion, may award
reasonable attorneys' fees . . . to the parents . . . of a
child . . . with a disability who is a prevailing party."
II. SUMMARY JUDGMENT
Under Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c), summary judgment shall be granted
if the record shows that "there is no genuine issue as to any
material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a
judgment as a matter of law." Black v. Henry Pratt Co.,
778 F.2d 1278, 1281 (7th Cir. 1985). The moving party has the
burden of showing the absence of a genuine issue of material
fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325, 106 S.Ct.
2548, 2554, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). A genuine issue of material
fact exists when "there is sufficient evidence favoring the
nonmoving party for a jury to return a verdict for that party."
Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249, 106 S.Ct.
2505, 2511, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). In determining whether a
genuine issue of a material fact exists, the evidence is to be
taken in the light most favorable to the non-moving party.
Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157, 90 S.Ct. 1598,
1608, 26 L.Ed.2d 142 (1970). Once the moving party has met its
burden, the opposing party must come forward with specific
evidence, not mere allegations or denials of the pleadings,
which demonstrates that there is a genuine issue for trial.
Posey v. Skyline Corp., 702 F.2d 102, 105 (7th Cir. 1983).
Based on a review of the record, the entire controversy
appears to revolve around a dispute concerning whether the
Plaintiffs are entitled to attorney fees as "the prevailing
party" for purposes of 20 U.S.C. § 1415(e)(4)(B). The material
facts of the case are not contested. As such, this dispute is a
legal one, which is capable of being resolved by means of
Unfortunately, 20 U.S.C. § 1415(e)(4)(B) is inartfully
drafted, and the term "prevailing party" is missing an
essential modifier, thus presenting the question "the
prevailing party in what type of action?". Applying the plain
meaning rule, the prevailing party would be the prevailing
party in the civil action filed pursuant to
20 U.S.C. § 1415(e)(2). That section allows a party dissatisfied with
either the decision of the hearing officer, or the decision of
the administrative appeal board, to appeal the administrative
finding in a United States District Court.
The Seventh Circuit has yet to interpret the meaning of
20 U.S.C. § 1415(e)(4)(B). However, the Court of Appeals for the
Eleventh Circuit has addressed the issue of when parents are
entitled to recover attorney fees under
20 U.S.C. § 1415(e)(4)(B), and that Court has not followed the plain
meaning rule in interpreting the statute. In Mitten v. Muscogee
County School District, 877 F.2d 932, 935 (11th Cir. 1989), the
Court held, based on the legislative history of the Act, that
the term "action or proceeding" refers to any administrative
proceeding. Thus, the Court found that if plaintiffs could
establish that they were the prevailing party in the
administrative challenge to the school district determination,
they would be able to recover their attorney fees and costs
expended in pursuing the school district's decision. However,
as the type of proceeding referred to in
20 U.S.C. § 1415(e)(4)(B) is not determinative of the outcome in this case,
this Court makes no finding regarding the proper construction
of the statute.
The Court in the Mitten case went on to interpret the term
"prevailing party" and held that it applies to plaintiffs as
long as they obtain "the most significant relief" requested.
Id. at 935-36. In the present case, the parents did obtain the
relief they had requested, namely, the retention of their son
in the Griggsville school district. However, there is one
significant difference between the Mitten case and the present
one: in the Mitten case a hearing was held, whereas in this
case, there was never any hearing because the parents withdrew
their hearing request when the school district modified its
placement decision concerning their son at its next annual
Consequently, this Court is left with the question "Did the
Plaintiffs prevail at the administrative level, when no
hearing was ever held?". No Court of Appeals has addressed
this issue. The Plaintiffs claim that when the Griggsville
school district revised its earlier determination, the
Plaintiffs had prevailed as a result of their request for a
hearing. However, it is not necessarily true that the school
district revised its earlier decision in response to the
Plaintiff's request for a hearing.
Absent any settlement or ruling on the merits of the
complaint set for a hearing, this Court does not see how the
Plaintiffs can be considered a prevailing party for purposes
of 20 U.S.C. § 1415(e)(4)(B). In discussing the meaning of the
term "prevailing party" for the purposes of obtaining attorney
fees, the Seventh Circuit has stated "the fact that a plaintiff
filed an action and subsequently achieved his desired relief is
not enough. The [filing] must play a `provocative role' in
securing the relief. If this element of causation does not
exist, the plaintiff is not a prevailing party even though he
appears to `prevail'." Shepard v. Sullivan, 898 F.2d 1267, 1271
(7th Cir. 1990). The Court also held that a district court's
determination of whether a litigant is a prevailing party may
not be overturned "absent an abuse of discretion."
In this case, the mere fact that the Plaintiffs eventually
obtained the relief they requested does not make them
prevailing parties. The Plaintiffs have not shown that the
school district revised its earlier determination because the
Plaintiffs filed their request for a hearing. It seems that
after another year in the second grade, Brenton Brown's
academic performance had improved sufficiently for the school
district to be able to determine that he would not require
special educational classes in Jacksonville. There never was
any settlement between the parties on the placement issue. The
Plaintiffs simply decided to withdraw their request for a
hearing after the school district made a determination at its
1992 annual meeting that Brenton Brown would not require a
special handicapped class and could attend a regular third
grade class in Griggsville. The district's decision was based
on the progress Brenton had made during the past school year
and occurred during the course of the district's annual
meeting, when the district reviewed the placement of all of
its students with special needs.
Consequently, the Plaintiffs are not prevailing parties
under 20 U.S.C. § 1415(e)(4)(B), and the Defendants are
entitled to judgment as a matter of law.
Ergo, Defendants' motion for summary judgment is ALLOWED, and
Plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment is DENIED. The parties
are to bear their own costs.
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